Article – China’s Soil Pollution: Domestic Food Safety Concerns May Bring Global Headaches

14 May 2014
Jack Di Nunzio
Future Directions
Last month’s release of China’s ‘secret’ soil pollution general survey revealed that nearly one fifth of the country’s arable land is polluted. As the costly clean-up of the consequences of China’s thirty-five year food production boom gets under way, large swathes of farmland are expected to lie fallow, creating concern over the long-term impact on the global food market.
The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection failed to release its completed land survey report in February 2013 citing ‘national security’ considerations. Since then, several alarming cases of agricultural land pollution and food safety issues have been revealed. Rice testing in restaurants across Guangzhou in May 2013, for example, showed 44 per cent of samples tested positive for excessive cadmium levels, which can cause kidney failure and severe bone pain in humans. Similar cases, after receiving coverage by stated-owned media, have put further pressure on the Chinese government prior to the release of the survey. The survey release follows on from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s announcement in March that China will commence a ‘war on pollution’.
Arable land pollution in China has reached a ‘critical point’. A Ministry of Environmental Protection report has revealed that 19 per cent of China’s arable land, and 16 per cent of its soil, are contaminated. The report, however, fails to define ‘seriously’ and ‘moderately’ polluted land, leading many environmentalists to assert that the problem may be much worse than reported.
China’s agricultural pollution issues largely result from the encroachment of industry into provinces that were historically given over to food production. This has led to the intrusion of harmful levels of heavy metals into China’s soils, particularly in rice-producing regions. Half of China’s rice output is sourced from provinces accounting for over half of the national discharge of lead (51 per cent), cadmium (60 per cent) and arsenic (56 per cent), among others. Hunan province, for example, contributes 13 per cent of China’s rice production, and ranks as the worst province in four out of five heavy metal contamination categories.
The Chinese government, in the wake of the report’s release, has pushed the soil pollution clean-up to ‘category A’ on the legislative agenda. Industry is likely to face far stricter regulations under the government’s ‘war on pollution.’ Stricter regulations include a ‘life-long accountability’ mechanism to transform industrial pollution standards. Approximately US$4.8 billion has been committed to the clean-up through a five-year plan, yet these costs will likely inflate as the project’s timeline expands.
China faces a decline in the availability of agricultural land, diminishing its established policy of maintaining food self-sufficiency. Large portions of arable land are likely to be decommissioned in the aftermath of these findings, adding to the 8.24 million acres put out of production in December 2013 due to fertiliser and pesticide overuse. China’s available arable land stocks, as a result, will likely drop well below its ‘red-line’ of 296 million acres required to ensure domestic food security.
The scale of soil remediation required across China could take decades to accomplish and would decrease future yields in key domestic food commodities. Rising domestic demand and declining yields will place pressure on the government to acquire more foreign agricultural assets and food imports, widening its current agricultural trade deficit of US$31 billion. As these findings of arable land pollution become public knowledge, Chinese consumers may lose confidence in many locally produced food products. This trend would compound the growing influence of China’s massive food demand on the global food market. The speed and effectiveness of the Chinese government’s response to this issue will determine the extent of China’s disruption of global food supplies, which already contends with increased global population growth and climate change.
Courtesy of Future Directions